Written by Elise Olmstead

Photos by Incogneato Imagery

The first festival of the season can usually bring anxiety, but I felt no such nervousness before Sleepy Creek Spring Dig this past May 4-7, 2017.  It’s hard not to have a good time at this family friendly festival, even when drenched in mud, because the warm bonfire and the smiles of friends keep me happy all weekend long.

We live close to the festival venue, Sleepy Creek Campground in Berkeley Springs, WV, and love the charm and comfort the campground provides.  So many people who attend the festival have campers and trailers there, and some fans of the music festival have bought lots just recently.  The friendly community and unpretentious beauty of the river lends to the overall vibe of the fest.

This year we watched the river flood to massive heights and up into people’s lots, even threatening to carry some stuff away.  No one was hurt, though, and most everything was rescued, but this proved to be the most water I’ve seen at an already wet Sleepy Creek. Thank goodness there is always hay, a bonfire, and the main venue area before the stage remains fairly dry.

We thought about driving home each night since we didn’t feel like breaking out the tent, but we very quickly decided to sleep in our car or find a place to stay.  It was our first festival of season with tons of local friends and music friends, so feeling the festival spirit, we quickly found a place to stay and hunkered down for the long haul.

This weekend was full of some pleasant surprises. The Dirty Grass Players, a new bluegrass band from Baltimore, MD, and featuring Ben Kolakowski, formerly of Deltanine and Bond & Bentley, was slated to play 2 sets on Thursday night.  Though they were the only band booked, Gary Antol and Libby Eddy of The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers happened to be in attendance, and got a big surprise when campground owners Cyndi and Dave Zembower asked them to play a set as one of their favorite bands.  At the end of the night after The Dirty Grass Players, assorted musicians and fans jumped on stage to play an impromptu jam.

The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers

It rained buckets overnight on Thursday, then warmed up Friday afternoon, making for pleasant t-shirt weather perfect for stomping in mud puddles. There was plenty of bluegrass to get you moving around and I quickly found myself shedding some layers.  It was a pleasure to see The Gypsy Ramblers from my hometown of Shepherdstown, WV, play their acoustic gyspy jazz, and then local favorites The Plate Scrapers from Hagerstown, MD.  Kitchen Dwellers had been much talked about all day, and I found myself reminiscing of Greensky Bluegrass as I listened to their set. This bluegrass band definitely has a fresh, genre-defying sound, and I left satisfied that they lived up to the hype.

Danny Moore of Brokedown Hustlers with Larry Keel

My highlight of the weekend was when Larry Keel showed up, seemingly playing music as soon as his feet touched the ground, and continuing until he disappeared in thin air, like a flat-picking ghost of Christmas spirit.  I found the band jamming backstage, then rousing the audience so much with their on stage performance that a girl ran up on stage to hug him, and then Larry sat in with Brokedown Hustlers for the song “Headier Than Thou.”  It was an unforgettable moment that may never happen again!

Mateo Monk is such a good way to wake up a festival, and I sipped my coffee Saturday morning pleasantly while he sang his soothing roots-reggae tunes.  I warmed up with a walk, and running into some good friends. The rest of the night I would find myself curled around the campfire, sitting on the edge of the brick fire ring, and huddled around the tiny standing fire in the backstage green room. It was a cold day but nothing a little camaraderie couldn’t fix.

The band Rivers followed Mateo Monk, and had a similar rootsy feel, almost like Rusted Root. They were soulful, bass heavy, and a welcome different sound.  Mountain Ride featured some beautiful fiddle and undeniable chemistry between the players, including husband and wife Eric and Kate Avey.

As the afternoon winded down and the crowd was ready to get rowdy, The Woodshedders heated up the stage.  I’ve known this band for a few years now, and they are sounding better and better, throwing soulful and funky elements into their songs, as well as a killer drum solo from Jesse Shultzaberger.  The buzz today, though, was undoubtedly surrounding Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, who I’d been hearing a lot about in the music world.  It was my first time seeing them, and they certainly impressed.  As I sipped my buddy’s home brewed beer under his EZ-Up, I was happier than a pig in mud. Another band with a unique, rather than traditional style, they even played some fun covers like The Talking Heads “This Must Be the Place” and The Grateful Dead’s “Morning Dew.”

Besides all of the amazing music, Lisa Glassman held her yoga workshop, despite the rain, in a lovely covered pavilion, and everyone was all dressed up to the 9’s for the Festival Parade on Saturday. Ashton Hill led an art gallery of talented local artists including Daniel Rioux and Allison Nickens, who continued to paint all through the weather.  I liked the placement of the art gallery, which was back behind the soundboard almost centered to the stage, but away from the vendors enough not to create confusion. Late night campfire jams soothed my soul, and there were far too many good conversations to be had and good friends to see.  At one point I gave Taco a list of goals for the weekend, making sure we got all of our friendly visits and must-see sets in!

Sleepy Creek is not your typical bluegrass festival.  There’s an underlying shared love for the Grateful Dead and untamed misfit weirdness that ties us all together as a family.  We assure you as soon as you attend, you’ll be one of us! And then you’ll always be back. There’s plenty more romps with the family this year–don’t miss Brokedown Floatdown July 21-23, and Sleepy Creek Harfest October 6-8.